Attachment may not be the big deal we all think it is

I originally wrote this post on my previous blog, but I’ve reproduced it again here (slightly updated) as I was flattered to discover someone had linked to the original blog post (which has now been taken down).


I wrote a post about attachment some time ago, mainly because I was fed up with the massive mis-appropriation of the term, and the lack of understanding surrounding it. Unfortunately this sort of stuff is still around everywhere you look, so it’s worth having a quick recap with some of the key points of what attachment is, and what it is not.

In Psychological terms, attachment is a descriptive term which denotes a dependant relationship, i.e. the relationship a child has with a care-giver. Attachment is not a term for the relationship you have with your partner. (I have heard of people being given ‘attachment questionnaires’ by Social Workers to determine what their attachment relationship with their partner is like. While this may be useful on some levels to reflect on the relationship you have with your partner, and while yes, there are psychologists who look at ‘adult attachment’ I personally believe these two concepts are different enough to warrant different terms, and that using attachment for both is completely confusing the issue, and contributing to the misappropriation of the term and the concept.)

Attachment (as we know it in child development terms) refers to an instinctive relationship you have with someone who can meet your basic, primal needs.  Needs like provision of food, shelter, warmth, safety, comfort and protection. You can have an attachment to a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a grandparent, or all of those at once.

Attachment is a very basic term, for a very basic relationship; it does not attempt to describe the complexities of the relationship, just to acknowledge that there is one there. Sometimes people talk about ‘improving’ attachment, which is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion – you can’t improve an attachment because attachment is a description of a collection of behaviours. It’s like saying you can improve yellow. You can change the behaviours, change the level of connection, the quality of the relationship, which may lead to a different sort of attachment – like adding in a bit of red to make orange. You may find you have improved quality of life, level of satisfaction from the relationship, etc etc, but you haven’t improved the yellow to make it orange, you’ve just changed it.

Attachment as a descriptive term can be further broken down in to different attachment types, and again there is something to be taken from this, but we must also be aware of the limitations of what it can usefully tell us. Firstly, it’s perfectly possible to have a different type of attachment to different caregivers. Secure with mum, but ambivalent with dad, for example. That in itself is interesting, as it can give you clues about the type of relationships they may have been, and about the expectations your child may have of future relationships. But at the same time it is utterly incorrect to label a child as having an attachment ‘style’, and it is also incorrect – and a bad habit that seems to have emerged – to label anything other than a secure attachment as an ‘attachment disorder’, or at the very least ‘attachment issues’.

Attachment issues. Now there’s a phrase. Adopted children have attachment issues. Of course they do. They have been removed from their primary attachment figure, and handed to a stranger. They don’t know who is going to feed them, where they are allowed to sleep, whether they are safe… But gradually they work out where they are in their new world, and they form new attachments. They can’t help it – it’s instinctive. It’s what psychologists call an ‘adaptive’ behaviour; in other words, one that we develop to help keep us alive. It’s a survival mechanism.

In the original Strange Situation experiment, Ainsworth classified around 30% of the children as insecurely attached – a figure that has been found to be consistent in further experiments. I very much doubt that those 30% were all adopted children, and only adopted children, in every iteration of this study over the decades – therefore we must conclude that biological children, at home with their biological parents, and living a life normal enough not to be deemed unsafe by the Child Protection authorities, can also have insecure attachments. By the definition above, these children then also have ‘attachment issues’, and yet, do they display the same behaviour patterns as our adopted children?

Let’s look at this from another angle. Tickle has all the signs of having a secure attachment to me. He gets upset when I go away, he is happy when I come back. If something scares him, he takes comfort from being physically near to me. He prefers to be with me over strangers. He’s reasonably happy to explore new environments with my help, but he does like to know where I am, and will bob back to me every now and again to check in, make sure I have seen his latest descent down the slide, etc.

So, if you subscribe to the ‘attachment issues’ theory, you would assume that Tickle should be fine, right?

He is *so* far from fine. And this is my point – by simplifying everything in to ‘attachment issues’ we are actually losing sight of some of the really important things that are causing big problems for my adopted child.

If we are going to have any chance at all of helping Tickle, and thousands of others like him, we must stop using ‘attachment’ as an excuse. 

Don’t misunderstand me – attachment is a real issue. But it is being used as an excuse for for not digging deeper. An excuse for not helping him (Well of *course* he’s going to find it difficult to behave, because, you know, attachment…). An excuse for not helping parents (You just need to build your attachment…). An excuse for lazy advice from professionals who have jumped on the latest bandwagon without bothering to understand it first. An excuse to not carry out a thorough assessment of need (because clearly, he has attachment issues), to not try to understand what is really going on.

I could go on, ad infinitum. As always, it is down to us, the parents, to be the detectives, the therapists, to take the time to dig deeper. But in the case of the great attachment swindle, we often don’t have the correct vocabulary to articulate what our gut feeling says, and attachment has become the hook on which to hang every problem that adopted children have.

I’m going to make a suggestion. I’m not saying that we never use the word attachment again, but let’s widen our vocabulary. Let’s use the word attachment, understanding what it really means, why it’s useful, and where it’s usefulness ends. And let’s explore some alternative words…


This one’s my favourite. I went on a course about trauma a while back, and it was really good. I’ve written about it in the book, so I won’t repeat the whole lot, but there are a few salient points worth picking out. ‘Trauma’ comes from the Greek word literally meaning ‘wound’, and these days can be used to describe a distressing experience, an emotional shock following a stressful event, or an actual physical injury. Obviously this also is quite a wide-ranging definition, but it’s easier to follow up with specifics.

Experiencing trauma doesn’t automatically mean a child is going to have lots of problems. The impact of the trauma on the child can depend on lots of other factors such as the child’s level of understanding, their environment, their support network, etc, as well as the type of trauma experienced. In our case, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of adopted children, Tickle experienced a variety of different traumatic episodes, in some cases sustained over a significant period of time. In our children these traumas can range from not receiving care such as bathing and cleaning, not receiving food, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and many more. Some of the experiences will have been less traumatic in themselves, but when they happen repeatedly over a long period the level of distress caused can increase significantly.

The brilliant psychologist on our course told us that she didn’t worry too much about the ‘whys’, the ‘hows’, and whether a child was ‘right’ to be traumatised. There are no rules around trauma.
She suggests we focus on these three key questions:

1) How has an event affected (or is affecting) a child
2) What barriers are limiting the child’s recovery, and what we can do about them
3) What resources are available to the child to aid their recovery, and how can these be used effectively

I like this approach very much. Not only does it empower us to take action for moving forwards, it allows us to be specific about what is happening, and what needs to happen. We don’t need to worry about defining whether this is ‘attachment issues’ or ‘trauma’ or anything else. Just answer the questions, and you have a plan.

A practical example from our own case would look like this:

1) Tickle has grown up in an abusive environment where adults often physically hurt children. At the moment this is affecting his behaviour at school to the point where he is hitting, kicking, and biting other children and adults.
2) With our understanding of the trauma that Tickle has experienced, we believe that Tickle is behaving like this in part because he doesn’t understand ‘normal’ interactions between children, and sees any raised voice or playground scuffle as threatening to his own safety. The staff at school are all lovely, but somewhat limited in their understanding of trauma, and therefore are not making the situation any better with their handling of it. They know that Tickle is adopted, but the bland phrase ‘attachment issues’ is not going to give them any useful information on how to deal with the situation. We are planning to share some more details about Tickle’s trauma and abuse with the class team, to help them approach the situation with more understanding of where he is coming from, and – hopefully – more empathy and patience.
3) We are in the process of arranging for our lovely psychologist to come and deliver some training to the classroom staff (and are using PPG to fund this) on the impacts of trauma, and how they can adapt their approach to support Tickle. In particular, we are going to focus on them explaining what is going on in everyday interactions, to hopefully avoid him forming incorrect ideas about adults or children being ‘dangerous’ and causing his fight or flight response to trigger.

The difficulty with our children (well, certainly with mine!) is that there are *so* many issues, and *so* many factors, that it can seem overwhelming. That’s one reason I really like the above approach, because it helps you to focus in on one problem at a time, in a specific, and practical way.


The above forms part of the chapter on attachment in my book ‘Me, The Boy, and The Monster’.